Tim Firth has shortened his two-hander play, so that Sign of the Times is much faster than Absolutely Frank. It’s very well acted by Tom Shaw as Alan and Stephen Tompkinson as Frank and director Peter Wilson squeezes every laugh possible out of the story of two men with (nearly) impossible dreams.
Frank has worked for the same company for a quarter of a century, erecting illuminated signs on buildings while dreaming of writing a spy thriller better than those of John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth. The trouble is that Tompkinson, though his timing is impeccable, doesn’t look the part of a conscientious worker who is just a little too grey in more senses than one to be considered indispensable by his boss.
Shaw on the other hand is credible both as the unwilling work-experience teenager who’s up on the parapet with Frank because he has to be, not because he wants to, and with the glib salesman persona he assumes five years on in his life. You can believe that he knows what he wants, though the means to that end are as convoluted as Frank’s electric cables.
Morgan Large’s settings are good on detail, though neither the exterior one for the first act nor the interior of the second give any sense that the characters are high up outside and then inside warehouses. The malfunctioning letters also aren’t quite as good as they might be. I can appreciate that the wind and traffic noise which initially set the scene has to be muted to allow the dialogue exchanges to come over without distraction, but the company flag could have continued to flap in the breeze notwithstanding.
Farcical comedy relies as much on things seeming rock-solid and authentic as on mishaps brought about by personalities as well as by circumstances. You don’t have to care for the characters, nor even like them very much, but you do have to believe in them while they’re in front of you. Frank’s comment about older men – that the noun drops away and just leaves the adjective – is an apt one. Somehow Firth has managed to trim away some of the core of his original play.